About that census and also, “Is Soul-Crushing Sprawl Killing Business?”

A few days ago my neighbor, who works for a very large company in the Chicago suburbs, told me that her employer just established a one day per week, work-from-home policy and also opened a satellite office downtown.  She said they did this because they are experiencing substantial difficulty finding quality new hires (even in the current economy) who want to work in the suburbs.  This anecdote is backed up by an article I read a few months ago on the Cleveland based blog www.Rustwire.com.  The story titled “Is Soul Crushing Sprawl Killing Business?” was in the form of a letter written by a suburban Detroit businessman who was expressing his frustration at the difficulty of finding good new hires because they were unwilling to relocate to the Detroit area due to its unattractive reputation.  Here are some excerpts from the story:

From: Andrew Basile, Jr

Subject: Why our growing firm may have to leave Michigan

We’d like to stay in Michigan, but we have a problem. It’s not taxes or regulations. There’s lots of talk about these issues but they have no impact on our business. We spend more on copiers and toner than we do
on state taxes.

Our problem is access to talent. We have high-paying positions open for patent attorneys in the software and semiconductor space. Even though it is one of the best hiring environments for IP firms in 40 years, we cannot fill these positions. Most qualified candidates live out of state and simply will not move here, even though they are willing to relocate to other cities. Our recruiters are very blunt. They say it is almost impossible to recruit to Michigan without paying big premiums above competitive salaries on the coasts.

It’s nearly a certainty that we will have to relocate (or at a minimum expand ) our business out of Michigan if we want to grow. People – particularly affluent and educated people – just don’t want to live here.

There’s a simple reason why many people don’t want to live here: it’s an unpleasant place because most of it is visually unattractive and because it is lacking in quality living options other than tract suburbia. Some might call this poor “quality of life.” A better term might be poor “quality of place.” In Metro Detroit, we have built a very bad physical place. We don’t have charming, vibrant cities and we don’t have open space.

The fundamental problem it seems to me is that our region as gone berserk on suburbia to the expense of having any type of nearby open space or viable urban communities, which are the two primary spatial assets that attract and retain the best human capital.

The cherished corollary to this is that Michigan and Metro Detroit have an “image” problem and that if only people knew great things were they would consider living or investing here. The attitude of many in our region is that our problems are confined to Detroit city while the suburbs are thought to be lovely.

I think long term residents including many leaders are simply so used to the dreary physical environment of
Southeast Michigan that it has come to seem normal, comfortable and maybe even attractive. Which is fine so long as we have no aspiration to attract talent and capital from outside our region.

My fears were confirmed when I began trying to gather local economic development literature to use as a recruiting tool. The deficits which so dog our region are sometimes heralded by this literature as assets. For example, some boosters trumpet our “unrivaled” freeway system as if freeways and sprawl they engender are “quality of life” assets. In San Francisco, the place sucking up all the talent and money, they have removed — literally torn out of the ground — two freeways because people prefer not to have them.

Also, check out Howard Kunstler’s take on this letter here.

people-place.jpg
Bidwell Parkway @ Elmwood / The Statler

Sounds not too different than Buffalo.  I have heard many times that major companies like M&T bank have had trouble enticing people to work in their Buffalo office because of Buffalo’s less than stellar national image as a bland and dying city with no future and nothing going on. This image is fortified by a dead downtown (on weekends), comparatively little street life compared to places like Elmwood (lead image – left) and Hertel, and vast areas of humdrum suburban sprawl (lead image – top right). Crummy winter weather is just an exclamation point on a bad situation.   By now we have digested the bad news – again Buffalo loses population big time, the sixth straight decade of major population losses for the city. 

If there is a bright spot it would be that the losses have leveled off to around 30,000 or so for each of the last three decades.  This is good news only in light of the whopping 100,000 residents in each of the decades of the 60′s and 70′s as people fled the city in a stampede!  While this last decade’s almost 11 percent city loss has grabbed the headlines, the more important statistic was virtually ignored by the press and area leaders.  That would be Erie County’s nearly 4 percent loss in population.  In fact all eight counties of WNY lost population.

This regional population loss (and especially that of Erie County) is really the more important statistic because it says something about the precarious long term health and viability of the metropolitan area economy.  The population losses in Buffalo have been easy to ignore because, in the past, so much of the city’s loss had been to the benefit of surrounding municipalities.  As the city emptied out, investment poured into the surrounding towns and people were happy.  The problems of the city with its crime, poverty, school busing, and aging infrastructure were easy to pass off as other people’s problems as long as the towns were fed by a steady diet of newly arrived city of Buffalo escapees.  Now that spigot of people has slowed and the few “growing” towns in Erie county are feeding on the aging inner ring suburban towns along with the city.  Predictably, the population winners laud their towns and the lifestyle they provide while exuding a self satisfied pride in their belief that they have been doing things the right way – “If only the city would just do the same” is the subtext.  They are quick to tout efficient snow plowing, great schools, and low crime.  Some have intimated that the losses in Erie County could all be attributed to Buffalo. This quote was in the Buffalo News soon after release of census results:

“Edmund J. McMahon, a senior fellow at the Empire Center for New York State Policy in Albany, tried to find a bright spot. The losses in Erie and Niagara counties actually weren’t as bad as could have been expected, he said. Take Buffalo out of the equation, in fact, and Erie County — propelled by the suburban growth in Amherst, Clarence, Grand Island and others — held its own, McMahon said.”

“In fact” he says. Is this guy serious?  Is he paid to say dumb stuff like this?  Let’s look at th
e reality. Cheektowaga’s population dropped by more than 6 percent; the Town of Tonawanda’s went down 5.9 percent; and West Seneca’s 2.6 percent. The City of Lockport saw its numbers go down 5 percent, and Lackawanna dropped 4.8 percent. The leaders of the area’s “growing” municipalities should not be gloating over their cannibalization of other parts of the county and state officials should not be making silly excuses for population declines in Erie County.

This is shallow myopic (and pretty stupid) thinking which is pretty much saying “everyplace needs to start doing things the way the ‘growing’ towns of Erie county are doing things” is short sighted head-in-the-sand thinking.  This way of thinking ignores reality and it ignores a growing trend in the United States in which younger people are no longer interested in the sprawl type environments that their parents built.  Metro Buffalo’s 60 years of sprawl building has basically gutted sections of the city (seas of parking in places like the Cobblestone District – lead photo bottom right) and created a vast bland landscape of aging and now more empty inner suburbs surrounded by more new sprawl supporting ever thinner populations in a generic built landscape.  

Buffalo’s two major shopping districts have been eliminated leaving a lifeless downtown – that’s the image of the region that is presented to the world.  Don’t get me wrong, Buffalo is a great place which is tremendously underrated in the national psyche. But, Buffalo cannot possibly compete for high quality young talent by showing them a dead downtown and the Eastern Hills Mall as enticements. This is what they are escaping from in their own dead towns.  I know, I know,  I am just someone from Chicago – what does my opinion matter – who am I to tell people in Buffalo what to do?    Well OK, if you don’t care what I have to say maybe this guy can convince you. He does not sound too different from young people planning to leave WNY.

I first found this video on Rustwire.com as well.  Rustwire is a Cleveland based blog which is fast becoming a great source for clear thinking discussions on the problems of sprawl in the rustbelt.

About the author  ⁄ Natalie Kreher

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